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Cargo traffic keeps local aviation sector in the air

By Macharia Kamau | September 7th 2021

Doses of Moderna vaccine at JKIA. [Edward Kiplimo, Standard]

Cargo business kept the local aviation industry alive over the last 18 months after the coronavirus pandemic dealt a heavy blow to passenger travel.

Freight is the only segment that is seeing growth, with the rest of the industry registering deep declines.

Data by Kenya Airports Authority (KAA) shows that cargo registered a two per cent growth over the year to June 2021.

Cargo traffic defied the impact that Covid-19 has had on airlines as freighters continued working as they were deemed essential even as countries locked their airspace to passenger carriers to curb the virus.

KAA said goods passing through the Jomo Kenyatta International Airport (JKIA) increased to 336.2 million kilogrammes from 342.7 million kilos in the year to June 2020.

“The cargo counter registered a growth of about 1.8 per cent (in 2020-21) compared to the traffic in 2019-20,” it said in an update on air travel for the period to June this year.

“This was supported by enhanced demand for fresh produce and other consumables in destination markets as well as the conveyance of Covid-19 related supplies.”

Cargo business was, however, still hit by restrictions on passenger travel. There was significant reduction in goods passing through other Kenyan airports, with Moi International Airport in Mombasa registering a 0.2 per cent dip to register 1.48 million kilogrammes.

Kenya Airways plane at the JKIA. [Wilberforce Okwiri, Standard]

JKIA was the second busiest in terms of freight on the continent, only bettered by Ethiopia’s Bole International Airport, according to the African Airlines Association (Afraa).

Bole Airport is the hub for Ethiopian Airlines, which handled large consignments of personal protective equipment (PPEs) being shipped to Africa and because of this, the carrier was among the few that reported a profit in 2020.

JKIA was ahead of other ports that register much higher passenger traffic such as Cairo and South Africa’s OR Tambo airport in Johannesburg.

“Addis Ababa airport handled more than 500,000 tonnes of freight during the year 2020. Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta and Cairo followed with 336,000 tonnes and 280,000 tonnes,” said Afraa.

Cargo was also a key performer for national carrier Kenya Airways. Although the carrier is still deep in losses, it made modest gains as it sought to increase the contribution of cargo to its revenues.

The airline in 2020 repurposed two of its passenger planes into cargo freighters as it sought more share of the cargo pie.

The carrier registered 33 per cent growth in cargo volumes in the half-year to June at 29,958  tonnes compared to 22,451 tonnes the previous year.

It is, however, yet to make full recovery when the performance is compared to 2019. Cargo revenues over the half-year increased to Sh2.69 billion.

“One of the things we have been pushing is diversification of our business. Cargo has been contributing about 10 per cent, we want to progressively grow that to over 20 per cent over the next few years,” said KQ chief executive Allan Kilavuka.

“This year, we have flown a lot of cargo. The repurposing of two passenger Dreamliners to cargo freighters has increased the tonnage to over 500 tonnes per month.”

KQ chief executive Allan Kilavuka. [Jonah Onyango, Standard]

Kilavuka added that the two planes will give KQ capacity to undertake long-haul cargo flights.

“This gives us capacity to fly huge volumes of cargo over long distances as it is a long-range aircraft that can go to Europe, Asia and America,” he said.

The carrier has previously operated freighters that only offered mid-range flights, mostly within Africa.

Despite the increased cargo capacity, KQ is yet to match the performance in 2019, which can be taken as a base year following last year’s sharp drop due to Covid-19.

Kilavuka explained that in addition to the cargo freighters, the carrier also uses passenger planes to ferry goods, which has been compromised owing to reduced passenger flights.

“Cargo is still lower than what we had in 2019 because a lot of our cargo also travels on the belly of our passenger aircraft,” he said. “Because of the reduced capacity (in passenger flights), we are low in terms of cargo compared to 2019.” 

He added that the carrier is actively looking for opportunities in cargo business, with one of the short-term goals being to get a deal to move Covid-19 vaccines across Africa.

“We are looking for opportunities to transport Covid-19 vaccines particularly in Africa. We only have about two per cent of Africans vaccinated so there is opportunity for us...and we have started engagement with the Covax initiative so that we can transport some of the vaccines,” he said.

KQ pilots are, however, dissatisfied with the carrier’s performance and note that it could be doing a lot better on its home turf.

Kenya Airline Pilots Association (Kalpa) said KQ has let other carriers eat into its market share while it should be a dominant airline as far as cargo going through JKIA is concerned.

“In 2020, JKIA moved more than 300,000 tonnes of cargo yet KQ handled a mere seven per cent of the same,” Kalpa said.

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